Learning from the lessons of history is at the heart of Hughie O’Donoghue’s work, writes Alan O’Riordan
A centrepiece of the visual arts element for this year’s Galway Arts Festival is One Hundred Years and Four Quarters by the painter Hughie O’Donoghue. The exhibition will fill the Festival Gallery with 20 paintings and a large piece of sculpture.
The show is part of the official 1916 centenary programme, but, as befits O’Donoghue, English born and of Irish descent, a wider view of the year and history in general, and how we remember it, is what has driven the artist.
“History is always partial,” he says, “it just depends what angle you come at it from where you place the emphasis. That depends on your allegiances, so it’s always a partial version of the truth.”
In essence, O’Donoghue is representing, in the titular “four quartets”, four partial approaches to history, from four perspectives: Those of the revolutionary, the soldier, the sailor, and the peasant. “My thinking,” he says, “was that, because it’s such a huge subject, the exhibition would only work if I tried to present these different perspectives.”
There’s a lot of him in here, too. His grandfather, for instance, though living in Manchester in 1916, was deeply involved with Irish Republicanism, while his mother’s family lived in the same remote part of Mayo O’Donoghue lives in now, cut off from the great events of 1916, whether in Dublin or the Somme.
“Where my mother came from,” he says, “and where we live now, it’s very, very remote. It was quite possibly having a mini famine during the First World War. That was a very fragile existence, and that kind of perspective interested me.”
Later, O’Donoghue’s own life would give him a dual perspective, with one foot on either side of the Irish Sea.
“My mother emigrated to England in 1937,” he says. “My father, although he was born in Manchester, had actually spent his early childhood in Kerry, in the ’20s, so, when he came back he had quite a conflicted sense of who he was. My mother, emotionally, never left Ireland. As a child that manifested itself as a strong Irish cultural identity. We were taken to Ireland every year for an extensive period of time. We had a strong sense of moving easily between English and Irish society and, as an adult, who has lived in Ireland for many years and brought my own children who were born in England to live here, I connected strongly to the idea of remembering that is one associated with identity. What we choose to remember informs who we think we are. That is the subtext to this work.”
As subtexts go, it could hardly be more apt in the summer of Brexit, and all the issues it has raised about English and, indeed, British identity. For O’Donoghue, the recent events have brought the exhibition into high relief. “I’ve listened to debates about it and it seems to be focused on trivialities while ignoring the seismic, shifting tectonic plates of European history that have been moving for the past 100 years. Those wars fought in Europe were about the destiny of Europe. The EU, imperfect though it is, was something forged from this colossal sacrifice. [The exhibition] is about reverberations of these events that are slipping out of memory.
“One of the things about history is if you fail to learn the lessons of history, you are doomed to repeat them. So, I think this exhibition is timely in a way that I wouldn’t want it to be timely. Europe seems to be splintering into narrow self-interested groups. It’s not a good thing. I’m not a legislator, Im not a politician. I’m a painter and I try to make my paintings about something that means something.
“I don’t make art that people think is very nice or put on their wall; I make art about the things that move me, that exercise my mind.”
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